TUCKED away in restaurants and conference rooms across Hong Kong are groups of amateur investors who get together each month to teach themselves about stocks and the stock market. Many of these investment clubs are composed of women, some of whom used to work in the financial-services industry in their home countries and some of whom had never even glanced at the financial pages before joining up. The clubs welcome them all. But with Asian markets in turmoil over the past couple of years, club members have had a wild ride. 'Last year, we just went on this roller coaster, and we could never stop,' said Klare Asker, newly installed president of the Hong Kong Investors, a club with a 15-year history and about 15 members, all of them women. 'This year, we want to watch the market more closely.' No one knows how many investment clubs there are in Hong Kong - other local clubs go by such colourful names as the Peking Bucks and the Tai Tai Investment Trust - but they form part of a growing global trend. The World Federation of Investors Corp ( www.wfic . org), an umbrella organisation of 16 national investment-club associations, counts more than 36,000 clubs among its members. Most of these clubs belong through the WFIC's United States-based affiliate, the National Association of Investors Corp ( www.better-invest ing.org), which includes nearly 32,000 clubs. Both groups offer information for clubs, including organisational, legal, financial and investment advice, as well as portfolio-tracking software. Most famous among US clubs is the Beardstown Business and Professionals Investment Club, better known as the Beardstown Ladies. This group of mostly elderly women became media favourites after batting out a series of bestsellers - and reportedly earning a 10-year average annual return to 1993 of 23.4 per cent. Later, an independent audit found an error in the calculations and put the club's annual return at 9.15 per cent - well behind the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index's 14.9 per cent annual gain over the same period. But the Beardstown Ladies are not alone. Recent research by two professors of finance at the University of California at Davis indicates that 60 per cent of investment clubs lag the market - and even other individual investors. Professors Terrance Odean and Brad Barber studied the trading records of 166 clubs that do business through a large, unidentified discount broker. They found that from February 1991 to January 1997, clubs in the study earned an average annual return of just 14.1 per cent. That put them 3.7 percentage points behind the S&P for the same period and 2.3 percentage points behind individual investors. There are reasons for clubs to lag. They usually buy shares in small lots, which can be costly. Professors Odean and Barber found the average club paid a total of 7 per cent in commissions to purchase and sell a stock. Meanwhile, they say, the average individual investor pays about 5 per cent in commissions on a similar set of transactions. The minimum commission in Hong Kong is 0.25 per cent. Ms Asker said the Hong Kong Investors club usually bought stocks in batches worth $25,000 to $30,000. But with board lots of HSBC Holdings going for nearly $78,000, this approach has its limits. Professors Odean and Barber also found that clubs did a bit worse than individuals when it came to picking stocks, but the stocks both groups sell tend subsequently to outperform the ones they buy. Brooke Harrington, a Harvard University doctoral candidate studying investment clubs, attributes this to peer pressure, saying club members sometimes buy a stock simply because they do not want to disappoint the person who researched the company. Ms Asker said her club had fairly strict rules for weeding out underperformers. Once a stock has dropped by 5 per cent from the purchase price, the club's management committee will examine whether the company's problems are likely to be of long duration. If the stock slumps by 10 per cent, the committee conducts a complete re-evaluation of the share. And if it sinks by 15 per cent, the full club will be consulted. Similarly, a stock will be re-evaluated if it rises by 10 per cent. Even with such logical rules in place, however, social dynamics still play a role in the club. In October, its members voted to liquidate the entire portfolio and put the cash into a time-deposit account for a month. The club's treasurer declined to say how big a loss was realised.